Home Interviews Exclusive Interview with one of the most brilliant documentarians from Québec: Yanick Létourneau
Exclusive Interview with one of the most brilliant documentarians from Québec: Yanick Létourneau PDF Print E-mail
Written by Patricia Turnier   
Friday, 09 November 2012 19:07

Yanick Létourneau was a Concordia University communication student. He's a producer, movie and documentary director as well as co-founder of Périphéria Productions Inc. That enterprise, that was founded in June 2000, specializes in movie and TV production. Since its beginnings, that society's been creating politically and socially driven documentaries as well as fictitious tales while keeping its focus on what captivates the masses. Périphéria 88 strives to have the latest word on movie directors, chaotic world events and new technologies.

Létourneau always admired liberated and thoughtful filmmaking that is brave enough to take on industrial diktats through works of art. This documentarian's interests range from sociopolitical and identity questions to pop culture and urban music. He produced short films and music videos for Quebec hip-hop artists through that perspective. That's how Létourneau wrote, produced and directed 2003's "Chronique Urbaine", his first long film stemming from his short film entitled "514-50 Hip-Hop". He then produced 2005's “Souvenirs d'Acapulco”, a Diego Briceño-Orduz documentary relating to sex abuse cases towards the homeless Acapulco youth by North American tourists. Létourneau also produced “Territoires" by Mary Ellen Davis, a 2007 documentary on Canadian photographer Larry Towell who documented the impact of war and countries' borders on the nomads. Another one of Létourneau's productions include 2007's “Ballades de minuit” by Diego Briceño-Orduz, a documentary on Latin-American immigrants. Létourneau later on joined forces with Natasha Ivisic with whom he produced and directed “Je porte le voile”, a 2009 documentary on Muslim women and their use of the hijab. That film was shown at the “Parallèle” theater located in Montreal and was aired on the RDI TV channel.

In 2011, Létourneau produced and directed his second high-rated documentary, “The United States of Africa” (a NFB coproduction) that relates to the social and political impact of the hip-hop generation, especially in Africa and North America. The film's official poster is quite symbolical and revealing since it shows a fist holding up a microphone in the air, which is an obvious reflection to the tone of the documentary. That film goes straight to the point and doesn't rely on self-pity; the moviemaker wanted it that way from the very start. That movie gives the opportunity to witness the richness and cultural diversity of that continent; a nice evening held in Ouagadougou rewarding African music, for instance. Strong and historical Black characters such as Patrice Lumumba and Thomas Sankara are put in the front. That film documents hip-hop through depictions of current social issues present in the African continent. That documentary is rich in contents, shows a different side to rap as well as a new portrayal and reflection on Africa, notably through the eyes of Senegalese rapper, Didier Awadi. That rapper's new album, “Présidents d'Afrique”, addresses today's youth through fierce lyrics. Awadi visited about 40 countries including Africa (he met fellow rapper ZuluBoy in South Africa). Stepping out of that continent, Awadi visited France and the United States of America (where he's collaborating with M1 of Dead Prez). Barack Obama's driving force led Awadi to take part in January 2009's presidential inauguration evening, an event full of hope for African-Americans. It should be noticed that “The United States of Africa: Beyond Hip-hop” emerged during the last difficult election in Senegal with the arrival of new president Macky Sall.

Létourneau met rappers Awadi and Smockey for the very first time during his trip to Burkina Faso in 2004. He was there to promote “Chronique Urbaine” (filmed with digital technology in popular Montreal neighbourhoods), a film about urban artist Sans Pression. Awadi and Smockey have now become the principal subjects of the last documentary by Létourneau. These artists that are recognized in their countries and elsewhere in the world distinguishing themselves by their firm statements and military demeanor. Didier Awadi, a pioneer of African hip-hop, very much popular in his country, has become a true advocate of such activism and Létourneau observes him with great attention throughout his journey. Awadi conveys sociopolitical ideals through his music.

“The United States of Africa” was broadcast by Documentary Channel, Super Channel and Télé-Québec (on last May 20th). Close to one million people will see that film in Canada and elsewhere in the world this year. Since last May 15th, that film is available on paid TV under the name “United States of Africa” and available in English on iTunes (Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand). Therefore, the movie's available in both French and English. It would be nice if it got translated or dubbed into other languages such as Spanish and Wolof. “The United States of Africa” is one of FIPA's (Festival International des Programmes Audiovisuels) January 2012 selections.

Medias don't overlook Létourneau's films. Papers such as “Métro”, “Voir” and “Le Devoir” critiqued his movies. “The United States of Africa” was played last March on the silver screen in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada. More precisely, that documentary was shown at Cinéma L’Excentris - Salle Radio Canada, and our Mega Diversities’ team was present. It was impressive to see Létourneau make himself available to answer questions of the public after projection of the film. Mega Diversities had a talk with Yanick Létourneau last spring. He discussed his journey and evolution as a filmmaker and his latest, brilliant film, “The United States of Africa”, amongst other things.

[Interview translated from French by the talented Israell Isaac]


The United States of Africa: Beyond Hip-hop Direction: Yanick Létourneau. Script: Yanick Létourneau, Sébastien Tétrault, Hany Ouichou. With: Didier Awadi, Smockey, M1, Zuluboy. Picture: Geoffroy Beauchemin, Alexandre Margineanu. Editing: Sophie Farkas Bolla. Soundtrack: Ghislain Poirier. Canada, 2011, 75 min.

P.T. When you were younger, which movie directors inspired you and why? When did you feel like walking down their paths?

Y.L. When I was much younger, like many children, I was inspired by science-fiction, especially by movies by George Lucas & (Steven) Spielberg. At that time, I was about 9 and that passion just grew stronger. I deepened and expanded my horizons, which led me to French cinema, amongst other things. It also allowed me to see the Hollywood film industry through a different perspective. American cinema is often based on formulas and prototypes whereas French cinema offers other points of view stemming from auteur theory. I was glad to discover that and I felt called by that different vision of cinematographic art. I also appreciated coming across Latin-American, African & French-Canadian cinema that were once known as world movies.

There was a time when I became acquainted with the work of Argentine movie director Fernando Solanas, one of the pioneers of the establishment of a third cinema in the sixties. It's a sixties manifesto. He started with activism-fueled documentaries then moved to fiction. He had an interest in sociopolitical issues. I truly did enjoy the revolutionary Cuban cinema era of the fifties and the sixties. Ousmane Sembene is a Senegalese scenarist mostly known for his activism-based work regarding sociopolitical issues. Movies by Idrissa Ouedraogo (from Burkina Faso), Djibril Diop Mambety (from Senegal) and Raoul Peck (from Haïti) also do please me. In a nutshell, I appreciate national directors that are not into copying Hollywood. It's always more interesting to discover their own paths and signatures. It's also a nice way of learning stuff about their countries.

When it comes to French-Canadian cinema, more precisely, my absolute favourite films are “Les Ordres” by Michel Brault, “Les bons débarras” by Francis Mankiewicz, “À tout prendre” by Claude Jutra and “Le chat dans le sac” by Gilles Groulx. Those full-length movies touched me.

To summarize, there is not just one type of movies that influenced me; I have a rather eclectic vision of cinematographic art.

P.T. Do you consider your work as a director a sociopolitical commitment?

Y.L. To me, social activism is an inherent part of being an artist and an author. One cannot dismiss one's surroundings. I believe we have a responsibility as artists and citizens. I just cannot cover my ears and put my blinders on out of lack of sociopolitical awareness. Stating that I'm only into art for the sake of art or pure entertainment (in other words, hedonism) is an oxymoron to me. I just can't cleave to such logic. If I invest time, energy and life into something, it's got to be impactful and pertinent. To me, art leaves room for questioning and can even bring answers to diverse sociopolitical problems.

P.T. What does hip-hop mean to you? Share with us your perceptions on francophone hip-hop. What differences do you observe between French-Canadian, French, African and American hip-hop.

Y.L. Hip-hop matters to me because that musical genre has accompanied me during a large part of my youth, starting at age 12 with hip-hop's first emergence with Grandmaster Flash and Sugarhill Gang with “Rapper's Delight”. I listened to their hits on the radio and tried to breakdance [laughs] in my basement. Later on, in the late eighties, I came to like Public Enemy that was very popular, especially with “Fight The Power”, theme song of the feature film “Do The Right Thing”, directed by Spike Lee. I'm quite hooked on that kind of fierce and authoritative rap with real speeches that teaches things. With time, I developed an interest in French rap. It started with MC Solaar. I often did tell myself that there had to be French-speaking rappers here in Quebec. I'd stay up late and listen to Haitian programs and “Nuit Blanche” that aired music videos. I also nourished myself of festivals such as “Nuits d'Afrique” and the “Francofolies”. That's how my interest in rap expanded itself.

In the early nineties, I started hearing about Positive Black Soul, an African hip-hop group that Awadi was a part of when he was younger. That's how I got info African rap. All this shaped my and many other young people's visions. All those influences gave birth to my idea of creating a documentary on hip-hop.

The first differences I observe between the different genres of hip-hop that you've mentioned relate to the commercial or mercantile aspect of American rap. Art has become an industry interested in short-term profitability. Its predominant themes, also found in American pop culture, are violence, misogyny, sexuality, hedonism etc. I think that that dominating and mercantile culture got ahold of rap and hip-hop. However, there are numerous artists that do not subscribe to such patterns, even though it causes them to be kind of ignored by the media.

Everything that relates to politics is kind of dismissed. Artists who follow that path are not put in the front. Top 40 commercial radio stations are often superficial in content. It's stuff related to nightclubs, alcohol and/or drug consumption, women (oftentimes in a sexist manner) and partying. Multinational corporations encourage that since such formula sells well. In our Western culture, there's this one big mass controlled by four or five multinational corporations deciding what gets played on the radio and what doesn't, which causes less diversity. My "Chronique Urbaine" documentary is a plea for a more diversified culture closer to the image of Quebec's population.

P.T. Regarding social conscious rap, I've been in Atlanta in 2006 and I heard young rappers that mentioned legends such as Dr. Martin Luther King in their songs. The fact that such tunes aren't heard on the radio or the TV stunned me.

Y.L. Exactly! There are young people that offer conscious and politicized rap such as Immortal Techniques or Mos Def (that is more popular). They've made the choice to keep that authenticity. According to my viewpoint, French people always had a much more conscious rap. I have Hocus Pocus, Youssoupha etc. in mind. Some artists pursue their career while keeping this mindset. That being said, many chose to emulate bling-bling American hip-hop and mimicked the bad boy and the gangster style. I however remain positive and I believe that we're now observing a reappearance of conscious rap. I realized that in French Africa. That truly pleased me. Most youngsters are into hip-hop and are politicized. They have their own vision of the world. They have an acute sense of responsibility as artists regarding the sociopolitical context they're evolving in. They just can't allow themselves to discuss partying and fast cars when some of their family members do not eat or when their country's unemployment rate is high.

P.T. Expressing themselves in such ways is courageous.

Y.L. Definitely because they can suffer backlashes. There are journalists and artists that were killed. The authorities, the army and so on can get in the bandwagon and just shut voices they find too upsetting. Through those forms of expressions, you notice a sense of priorities in those young folks. When it comes to French-Canadian rap, we've simply been copying the lifestyle of African-Americans that is nothing but a show and a commercial product. Many French-Canadian rappers cleft to that pretty American picture that just doesn't match their reality. They haven't developed their own personalized style or a strong signature. I'm not an expert in French-Canadian rap but I think that some like Manu Militari distinguish themselves via political statements. Those beats have a driving force that back such statements. Other artists that touched me are Sans Pression and Muzion. They've brought a conscious hip-hop to the French-Canadian scene with pertinent statements and a vigilant outlook on the world. Muzion, for instance, reflected their Haitian and French-Canadian upbringing in the heart of St-Michel, their Montreal neighbourhood.

P.T. Sans Pression succeeded in selling over 30 000 CDs without commercial radio airplay. That's truly impressive!

Y.L. Definitely! I do discuss it in "Chronique Urbaine". I find that the youngest generation brings out interesting tunes. I'm particularly thinking of Payz Play, Radio Radio (whose sound is interesting and fresh, but not the lyrics), Dramatique (that was once a part of Muzion) and Webster.

P.T. Marcus Garvey suggested the idea of 'United States of Africa" in 1924. When choosing the title of your last documentary, did you get inspired by Kwame Nkrumah (or by another Pan Africanist) who had a unifying vision of the African continent?

Y.L. Rightly so! My documentary fits such tradition. Marcus Garvey was the first one to push for such a concept. I think that Kwame Nkrumah went even farther in the creation of those "United States of Africa", the base of OAU (the Organisation of African Unity) at the start of the Pan Africanist movements of 1945 W.E.B. Du Bois and George Padmore, amongst others, were a part of. History has known many flows. There was Casablanca's school of thought that promoted a fast unification program led by a central government whose purpose was to reverse artificial borders' colonial inheritance. Monrovia's school of thought presented a more gradual approach, recognizing the independence of current borders through an active cooperation in the economic and political fields striving for a politically united Africa. This explains the fact a moderate school of thought and a more radical one did coexist.

I share Nkrumah's viewpoint; we shall not wait to put different mechanisms in order. Adjustments can be done along the way. Pan Africanism has largely influenced prominent politicians and activists of the sixties and the seventies, more specifically, Patrice Lumumba, Steve Biko, Kwame Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral and Thomas Sankara, later on in the eighties. All those men dreamt of the unification of Africa and tried to establish governments with such mandate. Unfortunately, the Western world often placed obstacles (under different forms: assassinations, coups d'état, so-called development aid, North and South operations, the inclusion of financial constraints by FMI and BM through structural adjustment programs and currency devaluation in Africa) in an attempt to prevent it and perpetuate modern slavery. More recently, Gaddafi embraced the idea of African unification in Lomé (Togo) in year 2000. Even though he caused controversy, he did believe in the unification of Africa and seriously thought, before his death, of putting out a unique African passport and currency for the whole continent. I maintain the belief such dream of unity subsists in Africa and it finally comes into being someday.

In conclusion, I don't think Africa is poor; I believe it was ripped off of its richness. This sentence is the first one in my movie. Africa was stripped from (which is still the case) its resources and colonized for centuries, ruled over by governments benefiting the interests of the Western world. Quite some of those mining companies located in Africa originated in the Occident. Such enterprises are involved in all sorts of cahoots with rebels, governments and presidents oftentimes in place to destabilize countries, exploit natural resources and tamper with elections. My documentary underlines all these questions reflecting my diverse thoughts on Africa."

P.T. How did the idea of producing your last documentary crossed your mind?

Y.L. Hip-hop is one of my favourite topics. Therefore, in 2003, I signed "Chronique Urbaine". As I mentioned it, my last documentary, "The United States of Africa", represents the continuity of my reflections and multiple trips that nourished me regarding this topic. My trips to the African continent actually started in 1993. My interest in different African leaders such as Thomas Sankara grew firmer. Later on, when I presented “Chronique Urbaine” in Burkina Faso in 2004 courtesy of “Vues d'Afrique”, I met Didier Awadi and Smockey during the “Ouaga hip hop festival”. I was quite impressed by his stage performance and the strength of his texts. His political and historical views on Africa did not leave me indifferent. That was a crucial point in the development of my movie. Awadi was completely receptive to the idea of collaborating with me. Therefore, Awadi's last musical project, "Présidents d'Afrique", puts the emphasis on great African figures such as Thomas Sankara (that accomplished a lot in a short while) through a series of activism-based artistic collaborations.

P.T. I considered Sankara a feminist.

Y.L. He definitely was a feminist and a revolutionary. According to my perception, what he achieved is a model for all least developed countries. It's an example of being able to get out of a hole without the need for international assistance. I think that is a major accomplishment that scares the Eastern world since it would allow countries to manage their own natural resources and no longer be submitted to strangers' diktats. That change would make it harder to corrupt local populations. To answer your question, my trips and my contacts with diverse populations of the African continent allowed me to further develop my interest in sociopolitical questions (history of colonisation and so on) and utilize rap.

P.T. Regarding "United States of Africa", you told the media that music and politics are all one. In other words, they can't be disassociated. Can you elaborate more on this?

Y.L. I can't recall the context in which I said that but I think it definitely refers to the artists showcased in my documentary. Their song lyrics are clearly tied to the context experienced by their population and they relate to all sorts of issues such as governments in place, unemployment etc. As a documentarian, it's important for me to create politically-driven films and I won't get involved in movies that are purely hedonistic or mercantile. The artists seen in "United States of Africa" discuss their political engagement and social questions in their music. They have no intention to separate such themes from their art. The illiteracy rate in Burkina Faso is around 80%. The infantile mortality rate is high. Life expectancy is of fifty years of age, which is quite young. In a context where people have a hard time eating twice a day, we just can't, as we've discussed earlier, only talk about entertainment. Those artists know that they have the responsibility to awaken consciences and hand out keys that allows one to get out of such a state of poverty. They oppose that state of submission that was pushed onto them. They are rich but their resources are getting stolen at the population's expense. They assume such responsibility and are backed up by their fellow citizens.

Last year, great students’ riots occurred in Burkina Faso. Violence was thought of as a way to shut it down. Such manifestations occur elsewhere, in Chad, Cameroon, Gabon etc. and international media rarely discuss it. People stood up to denounce corruption. Rappers represent the voice of those people and occupy an essential function.

To me, music and politics form one medium and that's a totally the path I take in my latest documentary.

P.T. You are the French-Canadian Michael Moore.

Y.L. [Laugh out loud] That being said, I do not expose myself the way he does in my movies, even though I have great respect for that documentarian.

                                      Didier Awadi 

P.T. You've had to travel about forty countries in order to conceive your last documentary. Can you tell us about the creation and duration of production of your film?

Y.L. I'd like to direct your attention to something. My production team & I did not travel forty countries. Rapper Awadi did travel all those countries and that's part of his "Présidents d'Afrique" album. Since it's all very expensive, we could only follow him in five countries: Burkina Faso, Senegal, South Africa, France and the United States. All of that rapper's trips allowed him to discuss certain figures and historical facts in his songs. In other words, those exploration experiences enriched his album as well as our documentary. In our film, we did not visit Congo. Patrice Lumumba's story was brought up without the need for that special trip. The same thing goes on for Nelson Mandela we did mention, even though we never visited South Africa. That rapper represented our eyes.

Research and development of the documentary started in 2004 and lasted up to four years. The filming was done from 2008 to 2010. Post-production was done from 2010 to 2011.

P.T. How do the Francophone, Anglophone and Afro-Caribbean communities perceived your movie? Furthermore, did you observe differences amongst those 3 publics?

Y.L. [Silence] I did not truly witness differences. White Quebecers that are not too familiar with Africa and the new perspective shown in my documentary have certainly experienced some kind of open-mindedness. They were touched by my movie and want to learn more. Some asked me for advice regarding trips to Africa. It's a very positive thing that my documentary became an incentive for them to discover the African continent and deepen things. Intellectual Afro-Caribbeans were glad to see a movie that addressed them and to realize that themes spoken about related to a much larger and different public than a tight-knit intellectual circle. They've appreciated that my movie left room for debate and that it's even more accessible to the public.

P.T. During the presentation of your documentary in Montreal at “Cinéma Excentris” last March, you stated that you'll present your movie in Africa. Can you share with us what you've planned in that sense for the next month?

Y.L. We're currently working with partners in Senegal, more precisely, in Dakar but also in Burkina Faso, in Cameroon and in Gabon. It's a combination of different festivals including “Festa 2H” (in Senegal) and “Écrans noirs” (in Cameroon). The film will be played at those festivals. A conference as well as a concert will be held in Senegal after presentation of the film. Our documentary will also be presented in South Africa at festivals. There will soon be confirmations and South-African television will air the movie.

P.T. Do you intend to present your movie at other festivals in Canada and elsewhere in the world? If so, which ones?

Y.L. Our film has been getting some good exposure since its world premiere. For instance, “Vues d'Afrique” played it. This summer, it will be shown at “Soirées ONF” in Montreal. In Vancouver, our film was played at the “Doxa Documentary Film Festival”. The Edmonton film festival known as the 'GVFF', the international film festival of Calgary known as CIFF, the "Durban International Film Festival" known as DIFF, Gabon and Cameroon's "Écrans Noirs" festival will all play our movie. The "South African Broadcast Corporation" will air "The United States of Africa". Our documentary was not shown in Cannes but was selected in the course of the deliberation process.

P.T. Since our youth love hip-hop, do you wish to present your documentary in French-Canadian schools and elsewhere in the world?

Y.L. Absolutely! The film was shown at several French Canadian schools and the response was very much positive. I met students and discussed with them. Our exchanges were very rewarding. I've also been to youth centers. That allowed me to approach universal questions they were not necessarily aware of. Therefore, it's an educational process to them. For the most part, youngsters were quite receptive. We've got lots of demands (for other schools) and we will go about them.

P.T. What did you feel when "The United States of Africa" received an award at the 'Montreal International Documentary Festival'?

Y.L. I was very proud because it's an important award. That reward came from critics, more precisely the “Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma” (AQCC) and the “Cinémathèque”. Those specialists know the movie industry and have lots of expertise in that field. That's why it's a very important symbolic prize. It's also about a festival known for its seriousness, and the award was given to me during the world premiere of my documentary (during the “Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal” (RIDM), last November). Furthermore, it's the second biggest documentary festival in Canada. I was very happy and surprised when I got the award. I was not expecting it.

P.T. What is your closing statement of this interview?

Y.L. I wish that the public becomes inspired by Senegalese rapper Didier Awadi's journey, one of the pioneers of African hip-hop, in his crusade to mobilize, notably Africa's youth that is demanding change. Our documentary presents an exposé on past and current struggles for independence as well as African unity. Our film, "The United States of Africa", underlines social, political and identity questions. Our documentary subsequently commemorates numerous Black leaders mentioned by Awadi, more particularly Thomas Sankara, Patrice Lumumba, Dr. Frantz Fanon, Kwame Nkrumah, Cheikh Anta Diop, Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela.

A huge combat ought to be held in Africa, but we also know that there are solutions and I hope that my documentary will give Africa's youth some hope so it finds its own answers that will allow the continent to win its unity. In the past, people stood up, sacrificed their lives and fought in order to defend other types of development than actual models that mostly benefit dictators that are in place and foreign interests in robbing Africa of its natural resources.

P.T. I do thank you, Mr. Létourneau, for this very interesting interview!